General_History_of_the_Pyrates_-_Ann_Bonny_and_Mary_Read_(coloured)

Anne Bonny & Mary Read – Swashbuckling Sheroes!

Anne Bonny and Mary Read are two of the most well known female pirates who ever lived! They sailed the seas of the Caribbean, gaining a reputation for how fearsome they were.

Anne Bonny (then Cormac) was born in Ireland in 1702, while Mary Read was born in Plymouth around the same time (no-one knows the exact year she was born.)

Anne’s father was a wealthy man who had left his wife for her mother, who was a servant. When Anne was a child her father dressed her up as a boy and said that she was his nephew, to avoid the shame of having a child with a woman he wasn’t married to. Eventually, when Anne was a young child, their family left Ireland to travel to the ‘New World’: America.

When she grew up Anne married a poor sailor and part time pirate, James Bonny. Her dad was not best pleased and cut ties with Anne, so she and James sailed to New Providence in the Bahamas – an island that was known as a pirate haven.

While Anne took to the lifestyle like a duck pirate to water, James became an informant, signalling the end of their marriage. By this time Anne had met the original Captain Jack: not Sparrow, not Harkness, but Rackham, known as Calico Jack because of the material his clothes were made out of. They fell for each other and, as was the practice at the time, the governor of the island declared that he could ‘buy’ her from James, which would end their marriage.

As you may imagine Anne wasn’t too pleased about this suggestion; no man could buy her! The governor ordered that she be flogged instead –  her husband James was petrified that if this happened she would kill him! Luckily for everyone, her and Calico Jack took things into their own hands and escaped to sea together in a ship they stole named Revenge.

Soon she would meet the woman who would become her famous partner in crime, Mary Read, who had ended up in the same place at the same time.

Despite the difference in their lives up to that point, there was one unusual similarity in their childhoods. Mary’s father had been a sailor, but had died when she was young. In order to survive, Mary’s mother dressed her as a boy too! This was so she would continue to get money from her mother-in-law (Mary’s paternal grandmother) – who didn’t like girls!

The ploy worked, and eventually Mary was employed as a ‘footboy’ (a servant) for a wealthy French woman. She didn’t enjoy this and ran away, taking to the sea. As she grew she continued to hide her identity and dress as a man – she even managed to join the British Army and served as a soldier in Flanders. Her disguise came unstuck however when she fell in love with another soldier; she revealed to him that she was, in fact, a woman and they married shortly after.

After a happy few years running an inn, sadly Mary’s husband died. At this she went back, first to the army, and then to the sea. She sailed on a Dutch ship all the way to the Caribbean, and when her ship was boarded by pirates – she became one of them!

Shortly after this their ship was caught and Mary became a ‘privateer’, someone who was out to catch pirates! But with a ship full of other ex-pirates the good intentions didn’t last long – and soon the whole crew had mutinied, choosing to return to the pirate life.

It was around this time that Mary, still dressed as a man, and going by the name of ‘Mark’, found her way onto the Revenge.

No-one knows exactly how, but soon enough Anne Bonny realised that ‘Mark’ was in fact a woman. Some stories say that Anne was also dressed as a man, and that they found each other out! She kept Mary’s secret and the two became very close friends – so close in fact that Calico Jack started to become jealous. He didn’t know that ‘Mark’ was Mary and grew suspicious of their relationship. When he challenged them they were forced to reveal the truth about Mary. Some accounts say that Anne and Mary were indeed romantically involved with each other, and that Jack was happy to give them his blessing, but we’ll never know for certain!

Either way the two women became known across the seas for their fearsome fighting and tempers, once being described as ‘fierce hell cats’! Their reputation grew and grew; the chances are no-one would have remembered Calico Jack if it hadn’t have been for his two formidable female crew mates.

Alas, all things come to an end, and in 1720 Revenge was boarded and captured by a pirate hunter called Captain Jonathan Barnet. Accounts of the capture described how the men on board, drunk from too much rum, cowered below deck, while Anne and Mary bravely fought above. Despite their efforts the crew was caught, and all the men sentenced to hanging.

The only reason that Anne and Mary avoided the same fate was that they ‘pleaded the belly’, that is to say they were pregnant, and the law forbade the execution of pregnant women.

Unfortunately Mary soon passed away all the same, dying of a fever the following year while still in prison. No one knows exactly what happened to Anne, some say that she returned to her father, or even her husband. Others imagine that she assumed a new identity and returned to the sea to live out her days as a pirate!

 

Find out more:

Check out this list of ten other awesome female pirates!

Most of what we know about Anne Bonny and Mary Read comes from an account written by Charles Johnson called A General History of the Pyrateswritten in 1724. You can look through an old version of this book online here, and you can still buy the book today if you wanted to read it yourself! (Available here, free on Kindle.)

Here is a short cartoon about the two women:

 

Caroline_Norton_by_Frank_Stone

Caroline Norton

*Trigger warning* Domestic Violence
Caroline Norton, came from a privileged and politically connected family, was a society beauty and was a celebrated writer of poetry.

After the death of her father in South Africa, her family became penniless and she was pressurised into a marriage to support her family. In 1827 she married George Norton who was the Tory MP for Guildford, but Caroline was a Whig who wanted social reform and was interested in improving the lives of factory workers. The pair were political opposites and did not get on with each other.

George became an abusive husband who beat Caroline for a number of years and often had to be restrained when he became violent or drunkenly attacked her. One beating was so traumatic that she miscarried a pregnancy. However, during her marriage, Caroline had three children, Fletcher (1829-1859), Brinsley (1831-1877) and William (1833-1842) who she loved.

After suffering years of abuse she left her husband. She allegedly had an affair with the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, and George Norton sued him for ‘criminal conversation’ which at the time meant adultery. George lost the trial but Caroline became scandalous. George, within his legal rights, emotionally manipulated Caroline by denying her the right to see her sons, then promising that she could see her them, then changing his mind over and over again. He also took all of the profit from her writing which left her bankrupt and reliant on family and friends.

Caroline poured anger at her victimisation into attempting to change the law and win back her children. She learnt about the English legal system, wrote campaign materials and canvassed for the support of her political friends. She expressed her feelings in poetry and her political works included titles such as ‘Separation of Mother and Child by the Laws of Custody of Infants Considered’ (1837) and ‘English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century’ (1854). She also wrote a 30,000 word letter to Queen Victoria about her concerns around the legal rights or wives and mothers. Ironically, all of proceeds from these works went to her husband.

These campaigning efforts over a number of years led to the passing of the Custody of Infants Act (1839), the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) and the Married Women’s Property Act (1870). These laws were some of the first laws to recognise women as separate to their husbands at a time when they had no legal existence, and were the first laws to allow women rights to child custody. Despite these achievements, when Caroline was legally allowed the right to see her children, George took them to Scotland where the laws did not apply.

Outside of her campaigning, Caroline did not identify with the women’s suffrage movement to gain the vote, which she called radical, but her efforts were intrinsically feminist and she advanced women’s rights in the Victorian period across all classes. Her laws paved the way for the child custody laws which protect women and children today.

Written for Sheroes of History by Stacey Dodd, who is a History & Gender Studies graduate,

 

Find out more…

You can listen to a free audio book of Caroline Norton’s poetry collection I Do Not Love Thee here.

There is a book all about Caroline’s life called A Scandalous Woman: The Story of Caroline Norton, you can get it here.

You can read & listen to many of Caroline Norton’s poems here.

 

*If you or anyone you know is the victim of domestic violence you can call the free national helpline on 0808 2000 247.*

 

 

 

Zitkala-Sa

Zitkala-Ša – The Sun Dance Shero

Zitkala-Ša (which means ‘Red Bird’), also known by the name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was a Native American writer, musician and activist. She was born on 22nd February 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Her mother was a Sioux American Indian, her father a white American who left the family when Zitkala was only young.

In 1884 Christian missionaries came to the reservation and took many of the children, including Zitkala, away from their home, traveling 700 miles to their missionary school. Despite her mother’s concerns, she allowed Zitkala to leave, at the age of 8, to attend White’s Manual Labor Institute in Indiana.

She wrote about her time at school in The School Days of an Indian Girl, describing the mix of emotions she had about it. The experience was frightening and strange to her; she felt sad that they made her pray to a new god that was not her own, and that they cut her long hair – which had great significance in her culture:

“I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities. People had stared at me. I had been tossed about in the air like a wooden puppet. And now my long hair was shingled like a cowards! In my anguish I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me. Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.”

Despite the difficulty she endured, she also felt glad to learn how to read, write and play the violin. The ability to write and play music gave her a voice that she would use throughout her life. She received a diploma from the institute, and gave a stirring speech about women’s inequality.

Zitkala returned to the reservation in 1887, but she had a desire to learn more, and so went back to the school when she was 15. In 1895 she received a scholarship to attend college where she developed her skills in giving speeches and also began to collect Native American stories which she translated into English.

The opportunity to learn violin gave her a great passion for music and from 1897-99 she played with the New England Conservatory of Music. After this she found a job at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where she would be teaching music.

Around this time she also began writing politically, submitting articles to local magazines. One of the things she wrote about was the school she was working at. She disagreed with the way that they tried to change the Native American children who attended; trying to make them forget their heritage, customs and religion , replacing them with the ways that white people lived. Zitkala was proud of where she had come from and her Sioux identity was incredibly important to her. Because she spoke out about this in her writings she was eventually asked to leave the school in 1901.

She returned to the Yankton Reservation and within a year had met and married her husband, who was also a mixed race Native American.

By this time Zitkala was a seasoned writer, and her writing career really started to take off. As well as collecting Native American tales, which she published in the books American Indian Stories and Old Indian Legendsshe regularly wrote political articles, and began to write about her own life and experiences.

As her literary career grew Zitkala didn’t forget her love of music, and in 1910 composed an opera with the musician William F Hanson. It was called The Sun Dance and used traditional Sioux melodies which she played on her violin and Hanson wrote down. The opera was performed by and for Native Americans, and dealt with many of the issues that they faced. It is considered the first Native American opera.

200px-Zitkala-Sa,_1898

Zitkala continued to write and became involved in politics and activism. She joined the Society of American Indians (SOI), becoming the only woman on the executive board. The SOI was a group who campaigned to preserve Native American culture and fought for full citizenship for Native Americans. Between 1918 – 19, as well as writing for it, she was the editor of their magazine American Indian Magazine.

In 1926 Zitkala set up a new group, The National Council of American Indians. She hoped to unite people from all different tribes to speak with one voice in the struggle for citizenship, civil rights and the right to vote. The organisation “advocated citizenship rights, better educational opportunities, improved health care, and cultural recognition and preservation.”

Zitkala-Ša wrote many things, articles, essays, books – both fiction and non fiction. One of the most significant pieces of writing she published was Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes – Legalized Robbery, published in 1923. This long-titled work exposed the corporations who had criminally obtained land (through robbery & murder) which belonged to Native American tribes, to get at the oil they believed was there. She spoke out about this in her writing and most people think that this piece was an important stepping stone to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1924, which gave land rights back to the Native American people.

Zitkala-Ša died in 1938. She is remembered around the world for boldly speaking out in defence of her culture and against the abuses they suffered.

 

Find out more:

Much of Zitkala-Ša’s writing is available to read for free online. Here you can read the account of her time at school in The School Days of an Indian Girl http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/gcarr/19cusww/zs/SDIG.html

American Indian Stories and Old Indian Legends are available free on Kindle, and you can hear an audio recording of Old Indian Legends here.

For an in depth piece about The Sun Dance opera have a look at this PDF: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3027&context=greatplainsquarterly

Here is a great WordPress blog all about Zitkala http://zitkalasachangeagent.wordpress.com/

Here is a video about Zitkala’s life with some lovely illustrations: 

 

 

 

 

Marilyn_Monroe_-_publicity

Marilyn Monroe – The Shero Behind the Starlet

*Trigger warning sexual assault*

Marilyn Monroe conjures up different images for different people. Little known is the ingenuity behind the glamorous star, who owned a library of over 400 books, an IQ higher than Einstein and a knack for determining revolutions.

Championing civil rights, Marilyn used her fame to support the beginning of the end of discrimination. 1950s America saw extreme segregation, and black musicians were often faced with the brunt of it. Ella Fitzgerald, one such lady, found difficulty finding gigs in the late ‘50s. Marilyn called the Mocambo Club, being a fan of Ella’s herself, and told them if they hired Fitzgerald she would watch front row every time. Ella has stated since that Monroe was ‘ahead of her time’.

In her youth, Marilyn was sexually assaulted. While being passed tiresomely around the 14 foster homes she had to endure, she was forced into a pious, Christian family; perfectly common in 1930s California. A church-working boarder named Mr Kimmel molested her when she was just the innocent eight-year-old Norma Jeane. When she told her chauvinistic guardians, she was caned for lying about a “good Christian man”.  However, on skyrocketing to superstar heights she became the first high-profile woman to speak publicly about sexual abuse and was revolutionary, as victims felt they could come forward in an oppressed period where popular opinion was that abuse rarely actually happened.

Marilyn Monroe’s impact on women is radical. It’s little known that she was the first woman in Hollywood to walk out on her contract and take on that little company called 20th Century Fox, who wanted to cast her in the same ‘dumb blonde’ roles and pay her less than any other actor.

She created her own production company – only the third woman to do so – and became the first woman with a presidential status within that company. Because Marilyn did this thing, so unheard of for a woman in the oppressive 1950s, it allowed her to explore different characters and express herself as an artist – not just a corporate puppet – in roles such as Cherie in Bus Stop, and partake in training with influential acting coach Michael Chekhov, and at The Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg. This led to the downfall of the ‘studio system’ to what we have now – where actors can choose the roles they play.

Popular belief among the unaware is that she slept her way to fame. This is false. Her autobiography, ‘My Story’, tells us that Marilyn was one of the few women who refused to bed bosses in exchange for parts.

Unfortunately, Marilyn’s modelling is what stirs the belief she was a ‘bimbo’ in a prudish 1950s world. However, Marilyn’s career was an early taster of third-wave feminism, most notable in the 1990s. It emphasizes that artistic female nudity is in fact liberating, and is a symbol of women owning their sexuality – not men. This makes Marilyn a ‘proto-feminist’, as she determined the feminist revolution that happened in the 1960s – before the word ‘feminist’ even existed!

If you want to find out more, this is a great place to start!

http://www.immortalmarilyn.com/MarijaneGrayMM2.html

Written by Eloise Heal.

My name is Eloise Heal. I’m a sixth form student and so far four-year Marilyn Monroe historian from the Isle of Wight, England, where I live with my family and King Charles spaniel. I’ve celebrated feminism, animal & victim’s rights and equality since I realised I could speak out, and enjoy every minute of it.

Mary with the pupils from her school

Mary McLeod Bethune – Educator & Civil Rights Shero

Mary Mcleod Bethune was an amazing woman; an African-American teacher, who started her own school for girls from scratch and went on to be an advisor to presidents, campaigner for civil, and human, rights and champion of girls and young people.

Mary was born in 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina, she was the fifteenth of seventeen children, and her parents were former slaves. From a very young age Mary worked in the fields with the rest of her family. Mary was the only child in the whole family who was lucky enough to go to school; she had to walk eight miles there and back, to a school which only had one room, and was only for black children. Because no-one else in her family could attend, she would come home from school each day and pass on what she had learned to her brothers and sisters.

Mary believed from a young age that education the key to helping black people gain equality in all areas of their lives. She especially thought that educating women and girls was vital to transforming whole communities. She said:

“I believe that the greatest hope for the development of my race lies in training our women thoroughly and practically.”

Mary originally trained to be a missionary and hoped to go to Africa, however she was told that black missionaries weren’t needed, and so she decided she would become a teacher.

She first got a job at a school started by another woman called Lucy Craft Laney, who greatly inspired Mary. Lucy was a former slave and was dedicated to providing education for black girls.

Keen to give more young black girls the same opportunity she’d had, Mary decided to open her own school. By this time she was living with her husband and son in Daytona, Florida. In 1904 she paid $11 dollars a month to rent a small house; she created classrooms by making furniture out of old crates and opened her own school!

She named it The Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. When the school opened she had 5 students; within a year there were 30, growing over the next few years to over 250 students!

As well as teaching reading and writing, many of the subjects taught the girls practical skills that would enable them to find work and earn money when they left school. Such subjects included dressmaking, cooking, business skills and science!

One of the subjects that was eventually taught at the school was nursing, and so in 1911, and because the nearest hospital would only treat white people, Mary opened a hospital as well, which would treat her students and their families.

In 1931 the school merged with the local Cookman Institute boys school, and became the Bethune-Cookman University, which is still around today! Mary was president of the college twice, from 1923-42, and again from 1946-47.

By that time Mary Mcleod Bethune had become a well known name, especially in political circles. She had become close friends with the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and in time became an advisor to her husband, the President of the USA, Franklin Roosevelt. She helped to ensure that black people’s needs were considered by the government, and continually pushed for civil rights.

Mary was involved in many public organisations, often holding key positions within them. In 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), which brought together lots of groups which were working to help women and children.

When she started the NCNW she said,

“It is our pledge to make a lasting contribution to all that is finest and best in America, to cherish and enrich her heritage of freedom and progress by working for the integration of all her people regardless of race, creed, or national origin, into her spiritual, social, cultural, civic, and economic life, and thus aid her to achieve the glorious destiny of a true and unfettered democracy.”

During the Second World War, Mary argued that vital organisations like the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps and the American Red Cross should be integrated and allow black women to join.

Mary Mcleod Bethune’s accolades and achievements are so great in number that it would be impossible to list them all here. She dedicated her life to the struggle for equality, and to the realisation of her vision for equal access to education. She organised voter registration drives to encourage black people to use their vote, and led anti-lynching campaigns. From the classrooms of her school with it’s recycled furniture, to the offices of the White House, her passion and determination inspired all those who met her and transformed the world around her.

On the the date which would have been her 99th birthday a monument was revealed to commemorate her amazing life, which was paid for by the NCNW, the organisation she had founded. On it reads an inscription from her last will and testament which perfectly sums up the impact she had on so many people:

I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you a responsibility to our young people.

 

Find out more:

Listen to this inspiring speech which Mary gave in 1939 titled “What Democracy Means to Me”

Much of Mary’s writing is still available to read and be inspired by today. Here is a collection of her essays and other documents.

There are several clips on YouTube where you can find out more about Mary’s life, here is one to start you off:

 

 

Detail from etching by Robert Spence

Margaret Fell – the Mother of Quakerism

Margaret Fell (1614–1702): The Mother of Quakerism

Margaret Fell (née Askew, later Fox) was born into a wealthy gentry Lancashire family in 1614. By the time of her death in 1702 she had gained an international reputation as a leading figure of Quakerism.

Known as the ‘Mother of Quakerism’, she played a crucial role as an organiser, innovator, author and elder of the early movement. Although the details of her life as a Quaker leader are well-known, her influence in the early movement was greater than traditional Quaker history has suggested and is a subject that is only just beginning to receive due acknowledgement by historians.

The Quaker movement (also known as the Society of Friends) was unusual in terms of the role it gave to its female members and was strikingly egalitarian for the time. Born out of the turbulent years of the English Civil War, Quakerism began as a revolutionary religious movement, founded by George Fox in the 1650s. Fox, the son of a Leicestershire weaver, who was inspired by the belief in a universal God-given ‘Inner Light’, believed that all individuals regardless of their sex or race could preach, travel on missionary service and participate in church government.

Margaret Fell first encountered Fox at her Lancashire home at Swarthmoor Hall, Ulverston, in 1652. Fox preached his message to the household and converted Margaret and her seven daughters. Her husband, Judge Thomas Fell (c.1599–1658) never converted to Quakerism and was initially deeply troubled by his wife’s association with this radical dissenting sect. He nevertheless came to support Margaret’s religious beliefs and provided legal protection for local Quakers until his death in 1658. After this, the Fell home at Swarthmoor Hall became the hub of the international Quaker movement and a repository of Quaker writings and correspondence.

The Quakers were heavily persecuted for their radical beliefs and were feared for their levelling influence and sensationalist aspects, which included running naked through the streets as a ‘sign’, interrupting Anglican Church services, refusing to show respect for social superiors and refusing to swear oaths.

Through her own experience of suffering, Margaret became heavily invested in the campaign to relieve suffering prisoners and undertook numerous journeys to London to petition for the release of fellow-Quakers. In A Declaration and an Information from us the people of God, which was a Quaker petition delivered by Margaret Fell to the King and Houses of Parliament in 1666, Fell highlights her choice of service to the Quaker cause over her familial obligations. In the postscript she added that she had been ‘moved of the Lord to leave my House and Family, and to come Two Hundred Miles to lay these Things before you.’ Throughout her life, her religious beliefs took priority over her natural instincts as a wife and mother.

In 1669, Fell married the Quaker leader George Fox in Bristol. Their marriage was radical because Fox, who was ten years her junior, signed a contract waiving his rights to Margaret’s estate. However, the couple spent the majority of their marriage in separate parts of the country undertaking work on behalf of the Quaker cause.

Following imprisonment at Lancashire Castle 1670, she took an active role in the evolution of the Quaker meeting system, which consisted of Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings for Business. Crucially, the system included the evolution of separate Women’s Meetings, which were given almost equal powers in discipline and overseeing matters relating to the female members of their congregations.

In establishing women’s separate business meetings, Fox and Fell expected women Friends to coordinate with the men in supervising the welfare and behaviour of members. Crucially, it was argued that they were to become active in their own right, thus departing from the belief that God created woman to be a helpmeet to man (Genesis 2: 18, 20). The powers granted to the Women’s Meetings became controversial subject and eventually led to a schism within the movement. However, Fell’s powerful influence and continued encouragement of her female coreligionists saw the establishment of separate Meetings for women across the British Isles, the American Colonies and the West Indies.

Fell was active in promoting public female speech, and in 1666 published Women’s Speaking Justified. This radical publication defended the right of women to be Quaker preachers and ministers in the church, arguing that anyone who experienced a divine call or message was a true minister of Christ and should thus be permitted to preach. This contravened St Paul’s injunction that ‘Women should keep silent in Church’ (1 Corinthians 14:34), which continued to be used by the established church to prevent women from speaking during church services. In her tract, Fell used scriptural example as a means of justifying women’s abilities to preach, teach and minister in the church. She cited twenty-four examples of female biblical figures to support her view that female public speech was acceptable when inspired by God.

Margaret Fell’s work on behalf of the developing Quaker movement was crucial to its survival, since her wealth, social position, connections and public standing provided an important backdrop to a highly itinerant movement. Her role as an indefatigable campaigner, sufferer, writer and leader of the Society highlighted how her religious affiliation superseded all other values and relationships. Thus rather than simply being the wife of the movement’s leader, she should be celebrated in her own right as a pioneer of early feminism and in offering a new paradigm of Protestant womanhood, which celebrated authoritative public female speech and women’s equal rights in church government at a time when women were still being regarded as ‘weaker vessels’.

 

Written by Naomi Pullin, University of Warwick

Find out more…

You can visit Swarthmoor Hall where Margaret Fell lived and find out more about early Quakerism http://www.swarthmoorhall.co.uk/

The Quaker Heritage Press has some of Margaret’s writing available online. Here you can read her arguments for women speaking in church: http://www.qhpress.org/texts/fell.html

Find out more about the Quaker movement today on it’s website http://www.quaker.org.uk/

 

 

Ethel_Smyth

Dame Ethel Smyth: Composer and Suffragette

Ethel Smyth was a composer, suffragette and writer known for her passionate public and private life.

Born on 23rd April 1858 Ethel developed an interest in music from a young age. At 12, when she learned that her governess had studied music at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany, she decided that was where she needed to go.

Unfortunately her father saw things differently, and was completely against the idea. He even stopped her music lessons to try and change her mind. Ethel was having none of it, and over the next seven years she persistently pressured her father; refusing to eat, locking herself in her room, skipping church and other social occasions until he finally gave in! At the age of 19 she finally left to attend the music school.

Once there Ethel met other great composers like Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Clara Schumann. Despite having gone through so much, and spending nearly all of her teenage years dreaming of attending Leipzig, after one year of attending she became disappointed with the school and left to continue her musical education with a private tutor, Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Herzogenberg’s wife Lisl became the first great love of Ethel’s life, and they developed a deep relationship that would last several years.

Ethel wrote orchestral, choral, chamber, piano and vocal pieces, as well as operas. Her opera The Wreckers has been called the “most important English opera composed during the period between Purcell and Britten.” Another opera she wrote, Der Wald became, and remains, the only opera written by a woman ever to be performed at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Although Ethel often struggled to gain recognition in a field largely dominated by men, she developed some significant supporters. Tchaikovsky once said of her that “Miss Smyth is one of the few women composers whom one can seriously consider to be achieving something valuable in the field of musical creation.”

In 1910 she met Emmeline Pankhurst and was immediately enamored. She joined the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) and declared that she would dedicate the next two years of her life to the struggle for votes for women. She put her musical talents to good use for the cause, writing The March of the Womenwhich became the anthem of the growing suffragette movement.

In 1910 she was one of the many women who responded to Emmeline Pankhurst’s call to smash the windows of politicians. She decided to take aim at the house of Lewis Harcourt after he made the churlish remark that “if all women were as pretty and as wise as his own wife, they should have the vote tomorrow.”

Ethel, along with the other suffragettes involved, was arrested and sentenced to two months in jail. Her friendship with Emmeline had by this time grown very close, and in one of her books she describes how the prison matron would let them visit one another in their cells, sometimes ‘forgetting’ to return them to separate cells. It is this, along with other details of their close friendship that has led to some historians speculating that Emmeline and Ethel had a romantic affair.

Ethel admitted in her writings to being attracted to women, and throughout her life was relatively open about her relationships with them. She wrote to the one man who she is known to have been involved with that it was “easier for me to love my own sex passionately, rather than yours”. Later in her life, at 71 years old, Ethel fell in love with another well known woman, Virginia Woolf. Although the two became close friends Woolf joked that her affections were “like being caught by a giant crab”!

He spell at Holloway Prison gives us one of the most memorable moments of her life; a friend who was visiting reported how, as groups of imprisoned suffragettes trooped around the prison yard singing Smyth’s March of the Women, she could be seen reaching through the window of her cell, conducting them with her toothbrush!

When war began in 1914 the WSPU agreed to stop their activism and support the government, in exchange imprisoned suffragettes were released. Ethel later went to France where she worked as a radiographer in a military hospital from 1915-1918.

Tragically, for someone whose passion for music was so great, in 1912 Ethel began to lose her hearing. By the end of her life she had become completely deaf, however for some years she continued to write music. When her music was celebrated in a festival for her 75th birthday, with an event held at the Royal Albert Hall in front of the Queen, the very sad fact was that Ethel, as conductor Leon Botstein reflects “could hear neither her own music nor the adulation of the crowds.”

As her hearing deteriorated she began to write books, most of which were autobiographical. A total of ten books were published….

She was made a Dame of the Order of the British Empire (DME) in 1922, and awarded honorary doctorates from Durham and Oxford universities.

Ethel died of pneumonia in 1944, aged 86 at her home in England.

Find out more:

The BBC have a wonderful archive of interviews with women who were involved with the suffrage movement, here is an audio clip of Ethel Smyth describing the incident which got her arrested: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/suffragettes/8314.shtml

You can listen to Ethel’s famous March of the Women song here: 

Want to read about Ethel’s life in her own words? Her memoirs are available on Amazon.

Her greatest passion was her music and today you can listen to many recordings of her most well known compositions on CD. Here are a few:

Concerto for Violin, Horn & Orchestra

Mass in D

The Wreckers

Finally, here is a useful PDF timeline of Ethel Smyth’s life: http://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Dame-Ethel-Smyth-timeline.pdf